It was standing room only and then some at Tuesday night’s Rockland County Legislature meeting.
With every seat filled, guests lined the walls of the Legislature, stood in the aisles and poured out of the two entrances into the hallways of the Allison-Parris County Office Building on New Hempstead Road in New City so far back they reached the front doors.
“I’ve only been here about three-and-a-half years, but I’ve never seen anything like how it was tonight during the early part of the meeting,” said Legislator Robert Jackson. “And given what they were all here for, you almost feel like there should’ve been even more people here.”
While finding a place to put even more people might’ve proven difficult, Jackson’s point was in reference to the first four-and-a-half or so hours of the meeting Tuesday night, which was a public forum on the 2012 budget proposed by County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef. The proposed budget—which calls for and would cut funding to many non-profits—has to be voted on by the Legislature by Dec. 7.
They are currently meeting with representatives from various organizations to go over their potential cuts in the proposed budget, and plan to vote on whether to accept the budget or make changes to it at their Dec. 6 meeting. And on Tuesday night, they opened their doors, and their floor, to anyone who wanted to speak. Eighty people signed up to talk Tuesday at the meeting, although as the night went on some left and closer to just 60 actually spoke. And even though there was no time limit per person, most kept their speeches short.
“Tonight we saw something different than what we’ve been dealing with,” Legislator Ilan Schoenberger said to his fellow legislators during a later part of the meeting after the public hearing. “We saw the human face.”
Chairwoman Harriet Cornell asked the crowd before the public hearing started to keep their speeches concise out of respect for the list of speakers, and to not yell out or applaud anyone while they were talking, which the crowd followed for the most part. The only topic brought up that regularly got people to applaud or yell out, usually in agreement, was when a speaker brought up getting rid of Vanderhoef.
“You created this position with all this power,” said Andrew Decort, who works at the Summit Park Hospital. “You gave him too much power.”
That drew a loud round of applause from the crowd, as did mentions by other speakers to try and find ways to fire Vanderhoef and one man who wondered if Vanderhoef could change his contract around so if taxes go up, his salary goes down.
Many in the audience wore red Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) t-shirts with the motto “People Work, Layoffs Don’t.” Members of the CSEA of Rockland set up a table at the front entrance of the building and handed out t-shirts to those who came inside. They also had a sign on the table urging the legislators to save Summit Park Hospital, which is where a bulk of the layoffs would come from, since in the proposed budget it is losing all of its funding by August and would have to close down.
The largest group in attendance came from those in the health and mental health departments. CSEA of Rockland President P.T. Thomas spoke longer than anyone else Tuesday night, for at least 25 minutes early into the meeting, and he touched on the health and mental health departments. He called the budget an “attack on county employees” since so many jobs up for elimination are lower salary while managerial positions remain. He said the budget is also an attack on public employees and the union. Workers from the hospital and other sections of the health and mental health departments spoke as well.
“You have heard very clearly from all the other speakers, the care, the concern, that the true family atmosphere exists, that the nurses, mental health workers and all the staff give freely every single day,” said Larry Sparber, a CSEA labor relations specialist. “This can never ever be replaced by outsiders.”
Another group that was represented by a few different speakers Tuesday night were veterans, who were there to oppose cuts to the Veterans Service Agency.
“I know it’s been brought up that we can send out service people somewhere else, maybe. We took care of our own in this county, and that’s what it’s about,” said Gene Sullivan, a Vietnam War veteran. “We’re not looking for anything here.”
In the proposed budget, the Veterans Service Agency would have to move from its off-campus location back into a government building, which some veterans have voiced concerns about.
“Veterans are funny people. After being around government, in government, dealing with government, no offense, but they don’t trust government,” Sullivan said. “They trust other veterans, and that’s what’s been there in Rockland County.”
Selena Nixon, associate director of the Rockland Parent-Child Center’s Family Connections program, spoke about the services they offer working with parents incarcerated in the Rockland County Correctional Facility. She said they provide a variety of services to the family, and so far out of the 130-plus people they’ve worked with, only 13 have even gone back to jail, a percentage well below the national average for people who get out of jail. Nixon also spoke about how expensive it is to keep someone in jail per day, and how much money is saved by keeping those same people from returning to jail.
“Keeping one individual out of jail saves the county around $90,000 a year,” she said.
Shirley Crabbe, a professional singer, spoke in support of the Arts Council, and said she won the 2009 County Executive Performing Artist award.
“I am a product of the arts,” she said.
She stressed that the arts aren’t just something to make people feel good and to sit back and enjoy. Crabbe said she works instructing kids how to sing and a woman reached out to her about giving her 11-year-old daughter voice lessons. When Crabbe asked why, the woman said because it will help her be more comfortable speaking to crowds and “it’s going to teach her how to be confident, it’s going to give her skills that will help her be a better business woman.”
She said because not only does it affect the community spiritually, but also gives people skills they can use in everyday life, she doesn’t think funding for the Arts Council should be cut or reduced.
“We are the heart and soul of Rockland,” she said.
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